There are few books that can truly be said to be unique, but this is one. Afghanistan has been a battleground since man has occupied its hostile landscape and others have sought to control it as the corridor between great continents. The British—conquerors of the Indian sub-continent—have found themselves fruitlessly bleeding into its dry soil on several occasions. The first was in the mid-nineteenth century as they attempted to secure an unpopular puppet ruler on its throne. Error compounded error as Elphinstone, the British army’s incompetent commander, compromised his strategic position in the capital and then, to extricate himself, instigated a forced retreat in winter as hostile tribesmen pressed in on all sides. History knows that this resulted in the annihilation of the entire army. Only a handful of people survived. One of these was Lady Sale, the formidable wife of Robert Sale whose brigade was fighting its own war locked inside Jellalabad. Incredibly Lady Sale kept a daily diary of her experience of the entire appalling catastrophe. It illuminates the events of the retreat uniquely and provides an inspiring view of a woman rising to the demands of extreme adversity that has no parallels.
7th.—Yesterday’s rear-guard did not get up to our bivouac till two this morning, as there was no attempt to form any lines. As stragglers came up we heard them shouting out to know where their corps were; and the general reply,—that not one knew anything about it.<br>
During last night, or rather towards the morning, there was an alarm. Had it proved the enemy, we were perfectly defenceless; fortunately it was only camp-followers, &c.<br>
At daylight we found several men frozen to death, amongst whom was Mr. Conductor Macgregor.<br>
The reason the rear-guard were so late, was, that they did not leave cantonments till sunset. Previous to their quitting them the Affghans had entered; and set fire to all the public and private buildings, after plundering them of their contents. The whole of our valuable magazine was looted by the mob; and they burned the gun-carriages to procure the iron. Some fighting took place between the Affghans and our sipahees. About fifty of the 54th were killed and wounded; and Cornet Hardyman, of the 5th Cavalry, killed. A great deal of baggage and public property was abandoned in cantonments, or lost on the road; amongst which were two horse artillery six-pounders, as before mentioned.<br>
The officers of the rear-guard report that the road is strewn with baggage; and that numbers of men, women, and children, are left on the road-side to perish. Captain Boyd’s office accounts, to the amount of several lakhs of rupees, have been lost.<br>
Two or three small tents came up today.<br>
The men were half-frozen; having bivouacked all night in the snow, without a particle of food or bedding, or wood to light a fire.<br>
At half-past seven the advance-guard moved off—no order was given—no bugle sounded. It had much difficulty in forcing its way ahead of the baggage and camp followers; all of whom had proceeded in advance as. soon as it was light. Amongst them there were many sipahees; and discipline was clearly at an end. If asked why they were not with their corps, one had a lame foot, another could not find his regiment, another had lost his musket: any excuse to run off.<br>
The whole of what little baggage was left, was not off the ground ere the enemy appeared, and plundered all they could lay their hands on.<br>
As the mountain train, consisting of three three-pounders dragged by yaboos and mules, was passing a small fort close to our back-ground, a party of Affghans sallied out, and captured the whole. Scarcely any resistance was offered on the part of our troops, and the syces immediately absconded. Brigadier Anquetil and Lieutenant Green rallied the men, and retook the guns; but were obliged to abandon them, as the 44th, whose duty it was to guard them, very precipitately made themselves scarce: but this was not done until Anquetil and Green had spiked them with their own hands, amid the gleaming sabres of the enemy.<br>
As the troops advanced on their road, the enemy increased considerably on both flanks; and greatly annoyed the centre and rear.<br>
It was the general’s intention to proceed through the Khoord Cabul pass to Khoord Cabul; and as it was not above one p. m. when the advance arrived at Bhoodkhak, having only come five miles, it was with dismay we heard the order to halt.<br>
We left Cabul with five and a half days’ rations to take us to Jellalabad, and no forage for cattle, nor hope of procuring any on the road. By these unnecessary halts we diminished our provisions; and having no cover for officers or men, they are perfectly paralysed with the cold. The snow was more than a foot deep. Here, again, did evil counsel beset the general: his principal officers and staff objecting to a further advance; and Captain Grant, in whom he had much confidence, assured him that if he proceeded he risked the safety of the army!<br>
On our arrival at Bhoodkhak, the enemy had very greatly increased around our position; and we heard that Mahommed Akbar Khan was with them. Scarcely any baggage of either officers or men now remained. In a very small pall of Johnson’s we slept nine, all touching each other.<br>
We were also indebted to Johnson and Troup for food. They had a few Cabul cakes and some tea, which they kindly shared with us.<br>
During this short march we were obliged to spike and abandon two other six-pounders, the horses not having strength sufficient to drag them on. We have only two horse artillery guns left, with scarcely any ammunition.
Again no ground was marked out for the troops. Three fourths of the sipahees are mixed up with the camp followers, and know not where to find the head-quarters of their corps.<br>
Snow still lies a foot deep on the ground. No food for man or beast; and even water from the river close at hand difficult to obtain, as our people were fired on in fetching it.<br>
Numbers of unfortunates have dropped, benumbed with cold, to be massacred by the enemy: yet, so bigoted are our rulers, that we are still told that the sirdars are faithful, that Mahommed Akbar Khan is our friend!!! &c. &c &c; and the reason they wish us to delay is, that they may send their troops to clear the passes for us! That they will send them there can be no doubt; for everything is occurring just as was foretold to us before we set out.<br>
Between Begram and Bhoodkhak, a body of the enemy’s horse charged down into the column (immediately after the 5th and 37th had passed); and succeeded in carrying off an immense quantity of baggage and a number of camels, without experiencing the least resistance.<br>
8th. —At sunrise no order had been issued for the march, and the confusion was fearful. The force was perfectly disorganised, nearly every man paralysed with cold, so as to be scarcely able to hold his musket or move. Many frozen corpses lay on the ground. The sipahees burnt their caps, accoutrements, and clothes to keep themselves warm. Some of the enemy appearing in rear of our position, the whole of the camp-followers rushed to the front; every man, woman, and child, seizing all the cattle that fell in their way, whether public or private. The ground was strewn with boxes of ammunition, plate, and property of various kinds. A cask of spirits on the ground was broached by the artillerymen, and, no doubt, by other Europeans. Had the whole been distributed fairly to the men, it would have done them good: as it was, they became too much excited.<br>
The enemy soon assembled in great numbers. Had they made a dash at us, we could have offered no resistance, and all would have been massacred.